World War II in Books

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Finally, I am able to teach World War II without it being done in the waning days of school in the middle of May.  Of course, I will have to confine my teachings to a few weeks and readings to a few books, but it is great to be able to delve into that world event that has so dominated history and society since the 1930’s. This school year, I have confined my Modern World Humanities History class to the 20th Century.  We did begin with an overview of history, culture, religion, and society by reading a Christopher Dawson essay on Christianity through the centuries and then by reading and watching Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?  After that, we began with looking at the world in 1900, followed by World War I, the Russian Revolution, the world in the 1920’s, and events leading up to World War II.

For my own needs, I read Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson.  I made a major mistake in taking on this book.  I assumed that it was simply a history of Britain during the war.  It is that, but it is much more.  Simply put, this is an incredible account of the various countries that were outwardly conquered by the Third Reich, but that kept on resisting, fighting, and trying to undermine Hitler’s New World Order.

My favorite part of this book (and I liked it all) was the chapters devoted to the Netherlands.  Queen Wilhelmina ranks right up there with Winston Churchill as a leader who used words and actions to oppose the Nazis.  The war transformed this queen from being an isolated member of the Dutch royalty to being a true champion and leader of her people.  The Dutch people themselves paid a very high price during their German occupation.  The story that many of us know through Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place is one of the most terrifying and yet ennobling accounts of faith and courage through the war years.

Likewise, the story of the Polish people is incredible.  They were the first nation to be conquered when the war actually began.  Polish airmen, in significant numbers, fled to England.  At first the British were skeptical of the abilities of the Polish airmen, but soon the Brits recognized the skill, experience, and dedication of this group.  Polish soldiers and resisters also fought bravely.  The great tragedy was that Poland was “liberated” by the Soviet armies which then clamped down on them with their own tyrannical means.

The stories of the Norwegians, the French, Belgians, and others are also aptly told.  The many efforts of the British, especially during the darkest phases of the war, are not excluded either.  This is a book that revives the spirit in terms of reminding us of why people fought and sacrificed in that war.  Even after years of reading books on World War II, I was introduced to many people and events I was unfamiliar with.

At this point, I will make acquiring Lynne Olson’s books a priority.

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Next on my reading list is The Darkest Year by William K. Klingaman. Quite often we are more interested in the movement of armies and navies than the homefront, but it can be argued that World War II was won on the American homefront.  I would hear about parts of this from my parents and grandparents.  They talked of rationing and other life-changes that the war brought.  For my dad, the war quickly took him away from the homefront, but my mother and oldest sister lived those experiences.

I will be reporting back again on this book soon.

I recently acquired three of Antony Beevor’s books on World War II.  In past years, I read his books Stalingrad and The Battle for Berlin 1945 and thought them to be first rate histories.  I would not object to having all of his books.  He is, according to the official website, “The number one bestselling historian in Britain,” with books in thirty-three languages and with more than eight million copies sold.  His writing is quite compelling.

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I still have a deep fondness for several American historians on the War, including Cornelius Ryan.  His main books were The Longest Day (which was made into a movie), A Bridge Too Far (also made into a movie), and The Last Battle.  It was many years ago when I read his books, and I am still convinced of their worth as good reads.

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In more recent years, I consumed Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day June 6 1944 and Citizen Soldiers.  I also wrote the student lessons that accompany Citizen Soldiers in the Omnibus VI book from the Veritas Press series.  Ambrose’s shorter book The Wild Blue: The Boys and Men who flew B-24s over Germany is also top notch.  That book gave me a whole new perspective and respect for the late Senator George McGovern, whose politics I disagreed with.

The Liberation Trilogy Boxed Set

Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is also outstanding.  I read the first one–An Army at Dawn–in part because my dad served in North Africa, but sometime after Operation Torch, which was the American and British invasion.  The second volume, which covered the Sicily and Italian campaigns, was beyond belief.  If I had not already known the outcome of the war, I would have been assuming that the Germans defeated the United States and Britain, up until the last parts of that book.  The challenges the Allies faced there still astound me.  I liked the last volume as well, and once again, was made to feel in awe of the common soldiers in that war.

My friend Glenn Moots recently called my attention to the book The Flying Greek: An Immigrant Fighter Ace’s WWII Odyssey with the RAF, USAAF, and French Resistance.  It is an autobiographical account written by Colonel Steve N. Pisanos who died recently.  I am looking forward to this book.  An added bonus was discovering that the used copy I picked up had been signed by the author.

My raid this week on McKay’s Used Books in Chattanooga included picking up Max Hastings’s Overlord, yet another study of the June 6, 1944 landings in northern France.  I am a dedicated collector and reader of Max Hastings’s books.  While he has written on numerous military events, most recently Vietnam, quite a few of his books are on World War II.

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Time would fail me to talk again about Victor Davis Hanson’s outstanding book The Second World Wars, Niall Ferguson’s The World at War, the multi-volume edition of Winston Churchill’s history of the war, or of many others.

For those who are overwhelmed by the choices and lengths of the greater studies and accounts, I would heartily recommend World War II: A Very Short Introduction by Gerard L. Weinberg.  This is part of a series of books, small and compact, with the words “A Very Short Introduction” following the subject titles. They are published by Oxford University Press.  These books, written by scholars in the particular fields, are great for either introducing or reviewing the topics at hand.

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Susie by Ray Rhodes–Charles Spurgeon’s Wife

Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, wife of Charles H. Spurgeon

Okay, I must begin again by confessing, “I was wrong.”  You would think I am used to this by now, but it is still hard to do.  But let everyone hear me clearly, “I WAS WRONG!”

First of all, I like biographies.  But I want to read about political leaders like Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan.  I love biographies of military leaders, such as Douglas MacArthur, Robert E. Lee, or Archibald Wavell.  I even read biographies of theologians, philosophers, novelists, and poets.  And I have many books about preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and others.

Second, I love the writings of Charles H. Spurgeon.  I first heard of Spurgeon when I was in Henry Wood’s history classes in my first year of college.  “Sell your shoes and buy Spurgeon,” Mr. Wood said, quoting Helmut Thielike.  I didn’t completely embrace that advice.  Yes, I bought a few Spurgeon works here and there, but never enough.  It was only in recent years that I acquired the available in-print editions of the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.  It was just a few years ago that I read Lectures to My Students from beginning to end.  Perhaps my own ministry work and preaching revealed my Spurgeon-gaps more than I realized.  But I was a fan, a reader, a gleaner of quotes.

All that being said, I was not initially drawn to this book.  There is a slight dread of the religious biography that tends toward hagiography.  There is the slight distaste for the Victorian era style of writing with overblown, overly sentimental, and overly “spiritual” language.  And I am possibly a male chauvinist.  It is stupid if I am such, for my life has been incredibly enriched by wise, godly, strong-minded women.

The first wall of resistance crumbled when George Grant promoted the book back in December in a series of posts recommending books for Christmas. I did succumb to several of George’s suggestions, meaning that I bought the books for myself for Christmas. But I did not buy Susie.  And one of my teachers offered to buy me a copy of the book, but I declined that act of generosity.

Then I became friends with Ray Rhodes Jr., the author, on Facebook.  At that point, I was being overwhelmed with reading posts by him and comment from appreciative readers.  I gave in, contacted Moody Press, and received my copy of the book.

Susie:  The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, wife of Charles H. Spurgeon, published by Moody, is a very delightful book.  Yes, Charles and Susie used much of the stilted and spiritual Victorian language in communicating to each other.  This tends to obscure some of the real emotions or trials they were facing.  In the case of Susie’s physical problems, we are left to speculate what her problem was.  She had a very serious surgery after the birth of twin boys, resulting in no further children for the couple.  So, we don’t know exactly what female problem she had, as though my life is somehow incomplete for not knowing this.

We live in a time of bluntness, detail, and, subsequently, crassness.  While I don’t think we should revert to saying “She is in a family way, rather than “She is pregnant,” I do wish we had a little more circumspectness about language.  The age of the Spurgeon’s is a healthy antidote to our age.  Plus, the degree of turning every written communication into a Christian exhortation is woefully deficient.  I confess to being far more prone to ask a fellow church member about work, weather, or widgets than asking him about his prayers.  The point being that the life and times of Charles and Susie Spurgeon are instructive and convicting for us in our times.

Now, here’s the scandal buried in the text of this book.  After all, we live in a time of scandals here and there among not only political and entertainment figures, but also church leaders.  Charles and Susie Spurgeon were on the surface fully absorbed in the Christian life and faith.  But in private…they were just as absorbed, if not more so.  Outwardly, they seemed to have a marriage driven by love for Christ and each other.  Inwardly, the same.  Charles was a powerhouse in the pulpit, and he was the same man at home.

Along with their solid Christian lives, take note also of this:  Their lives are a repudiation of the health and wealth gospel heresy of our time.  Financially, they did seem to do well, but considering the fact that Charles pastored a mega-church, they were not rich.  Healthwise, their lives were incredibly difficult.  Besides frequent bouts of depression, Charles suffered gout continually along with other ailments.  His life’s work looks to be the product of someone who lived 300 years, but he died at age 57. Susie lived on for more than a decade longer, although she was ill and infirm during that time.

Being married to a woman who has been the wife of a pastor, I know the weight they carry.  Although Scripture gives no commands regarding the duties of pastor’s wives, they have many duties, chief among which is being a helpmeet to a man with an impossible job.  Like many spouses of preachers, Susie carried on additional work.  She wrote a number of books herself and worked extensively on her husband’s posthumous autobiography.  She helped start a church in a community that did not have a Baptist church.  Most of all, she ran a ministry devoted to sending out books to pastors whose shelves, unlike her own husband’s, were devoid of books.

She was, in short, quite an incredible woman.  I found myself inspired, convicted, and amazed constantly while reading this book.  I have no doubt that many women have and will enjoy reading this book, but I would encourage men to read it as well.  There have been too many cases, especially in some Reformed circles, where women and women’s ministries have been demeaned, suppressed, and despised.  Susannah Spurgeon was a woman who shouted at the top of her lungs to the church and to the world.  She didn’t do so literally, of course.  But through her works, book distributions, prayers, and testimony, her life was a loudspeaker proclaiming the glories of Christ.

Don’t hesitate any longer.  Buy and read this book.

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Calvin Books from Banner of Truth


Sermons on Timothy and Titus (16th-17th Century Facsimile Editions): Calvin, John

It is a rather funny thing that that such words as “Calvinists,” “Calvinism,” and the like exist.  I don’t think Calvin himself would find it either funny or flattering. He would be most troubled that his attempts to mine the truths of the Bible would be something that resulted in attaching his name to a movement, which is really a number of movements.  But the terms related to Calvin’s name are useful as identifiers when used correctly.

What is too easily overlooked is how Calvin the man was so different from those of us who have appropriated the name Calvinists.  Calvin was often more a devotional writer than a scholarly theologian.  He seems to have had one and only one audience:  God’s sheep, the congregation.  His preaching schedule was murderous, and his method was expository teaching through the Bible book by book.

Some years ago, Banner of Truth (which is a favorite publisher) reprinted several facsimile editions of Calvin’s sermons.  These were English translations from the 1500’s and maybe the 1600’s.  These were beautiful books–big, well bound, and printed with quality in mind. But for reading purposes, they were less appealing.  The size of the books, the older versions of English print, and the other features expected in a facsimile edition render these books hard to read.  When I preached through 1 Timothy a few years ago, I don’t think I even looked at the facsimile that I have.

Now here is the good news:  Calvin still speaks to us today.  His message is still relevant.  And, translations are pouring off the printing presses that are much more manageable, readable, and attainable.  While Banner of Truth is not the only publisher to be mining the riches of Calvin’s sermons and books, they books they have made available are outstanding.

Currently, I am reading from Letters of John Calvin.  Banner has a more complete multi-volume edition of Calvin’s letters and other writings that is quite attractive. It is called Tracts and Letters of John Calvin.  Many years ago, I picked up a four volume set of Calvin’s letters that has been valued, but under-used in my library.  It was published by some scholarly publisher, and I suspect Calvin’s correspondence was rare until the recent Banner set.

But most people are not going to casually or devotionally read multiple volumes of Calvin’s mail.  This book is just the right size. It is a relatively small book of some 70 letters and less than 300 pages.  The letters are preceded by a biographical sketch of Calvin’s life.  Despite having read books and articles by the scores on the life of Calvin, I always enjoy revisiting his story once again.

His correspondence provides an autobiographical look into the man’s personality and character.  It is also a testimony to the front line issues of the Reformation and key figures in it.  Because Calvin’s intent and life was God-centered, this book is devotional reading and theological study as well.

Cover image for Sermons on 1 Timothy

Robert White is, as far as I know, the best Calvin translator around today.  Several years ago, I received and read from his translation of Calvin’s Institutes.  It is a beautiful rendering of Calvin’s words.  Most recently, I have acquired Sermons on First Timothy.  It rests on the stack of books I read from in the mornings, and for now, it is part of my Sunday morning reading.  In other words, I am inching my way through this book of sermons.

I would think that the better method would be to read a sermon every day, but time constraints prevent that right now.  But Calvin can be enjoyed in just short and even infrequent doses.  Cotton Mather said that he loved to sweeten his breath with the taste of Calvin before going to bed.  Me, on the other hand–I prefer a dose of Calvin along with strong morning coffee.

Whether read in conjunction with Calvin’s commentary on 1 Timothy or read as a resource, this book would be most useful to the pastor or teacher working through the letter.  Also, as a book just for spiritual edification (as though that were a minor component of life), this volume is first rate.

Take note that Banner now has volumes of sermons on 2 Timothy, Titus, Genesis, Job, Jeremiah and Lamentations, Daniel, and perhaps others that I have overlooked. Needless to say, there are far too many good books around than I can wrap my mind, time, or pocketbook around.  Nevertheless, we do what we can.  Inch along the way and get Calvin’s books in the new, faithful translations.

Banner Books on Calvin:  HERE.

Cover image for John Calvin's 'Institutes of the Christian Religion'

Cover Image for 'Sermons on Titus' by John Calvin